Perhaps the most recognizable figure associated with postmodern thought is Michel Foucault (1937–1984). Foucault incorporated a variety of theoretical insights, particularly from Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, he was particularly interested in the relationship between power and knowledge.
Foucault’s early work focused on the structures that underlie the limits of discourse and the ways in which discourses create “truth.” Thus, much of Foucault’s work focuses on discourses (see Foucault's concept of discourse) related to the creation of the human sciences, such as psychology. Foucault’s work during this period ranged from investigating medical discourses and the construction of normative understanding of people (normal versus pathological) and ultimately into the problematic surrounding the emergence of people as both subject and object of knowledge.
In addition, Foucault’s later, less structuralist work sought to create a genealogy of power, a type of historical analysis that does not seek invariable laws of social change, but rather recognizes the contingency of history. Substantively, Foucault’s genealogy questioned the ways in which knowledge and power interpenetrate in certain types of practices, such as the regulation of the body, governing bodies, and the formation of the self (see Foucault on power and knowledge). Thus, it asks how people govern themselves and others through the production of knowledge. Foucault pays particular attention to the techniques that are developed from knowledge and to how they are used to control people, what he terms as technologies of power. For Foucault, history is punctuated with changing forms of domination.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault reinterprets the transformation of crime and punishment, shifting the explanation away from humanistic concerns and towards the need to rationalize the functions of discipline and punishment. Foucault attempts to highlight the multivalent, multidimensional nature of this transformation by acknowledging the relationship between the new techniques of punishment and discipline with the encroachment of power throughout society. These “micro-physics of power” were based on hierarchical observation, normalizing judgments, and examination, and they were originally taken from the military. These find their ultimate expression in the Panopticon, a structure designed by Jeremy Bentham for observing criminals. The characteristics of the panopticon are important, because it allows for the shift in regulatory power to the individual, as they now self-monitor their behavior. Foucault is also interested in the relationship between sex and power. Here again he reinterprets history to show the ways in which medicine is more concerned with morality than with sexuality.
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